IBS and Gluten Intolerance: Similar Symptoms, Different Causes

Medically reviewed by: Gary H. Hoffman, MD

IBS and Gluten Intolerance have similar symptoms, but different causesA lot of gastrointestinal issues have similar symptoms, and this makes diagnoses tricky at times. While some diseases like colorectal cancer or hemorrhoids are diagnosed through physical detection, other conditions are evaluated more symptomatically. Even with advanced testing it can take time to analyze the cause and severity of gastrointestinal discomfort.

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Certain conditions are caused by a reaction to particular foods while others flare up due to stress or menstrual causes. Two of the most commonly confused conditions that colon and rectal specialists come across are Celiac disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS.

It is estimated that up to 15% of celiac disease patients are initially misdiagnosed as having IBS. The reason for this is that the symptoms are remarkably similar.

Symptoms of IBS and gluten intolerance often include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Gas

With both conditions, not all patients experience the symptoms in the same way. You might experience a few of these regularly and then others from time to time. Likewise, some of these symptoms may develop more severely than others. With both conditions, patients will often notice changes in the consistency of their stools.

Dietary triggers make celiac disease and IBS very different.

With celiac disease the symptoms are triggered by gluten intolerance, while IBS does not have any direct organic cause. Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye, but the ingredient is used far beyond the scope of breads. Any item that uses flour is filled with gluten, and this makes it very hard to avoid. A lot of patients do not realize when they are eating gluten and so have trouble connecting dietary dots with their upset stomachs. For patients with celiac disease, symptoms most often go away after you successfully eliminate gluten from your diet.

With IBS, the pain is associated with how the bowels move. Irritable bowel syndrome causes the intestines to squeeze frequently. This causes regular discomfort as your bowel movements attempt to travel through your contracting colon.

Celiac disease is not associated with intestinal movement. This is an autoimmune disorder which means it affects the intestinal lining. The digestion of gluten causes the lining of the colon to become inflamed, prompting a series of uncomfortable symptoms.

For both IBS and celiac disease the process of diagnosis can take some time.

Your best bet is to be completely open and honest with your physician about your dietary habits, stress level and other lifestyle factors.

Don’t make any changes to your diet until you visit your doctor. If you eliminate gluten from your diet and your symptoms diminish there is a big chance that you have celiac disease, but it is impossible to tell without the proper testing, and that will be hard to do if you have already adjusted your diet.

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